Vlado and the Suez Canal

The United Nations Suez Canal Clearance Operation (UNSCO) was one of many missions that Vlado was involved with. Interesting items have been saved from this time, including a chart of the UN clearance operation schedule from January-April 1957; which shows the names of the tugs, salvage vessels and diver’s ships, with names like “Hermes and Wotan” and “Atlas”. It’s a very large chart, but I will post it here soon.
This is a photo of Vlado taking a camel to work:
Fabry Archive - Selected Photographs (43)
Here are three letters written by Vlado from Ismaïlia, Egypt, during the clearance operation – the first letter was sent to his friend and flatmate in New York, William W. Crandall, March 27, 1957:

Dear Bill,
I am afraid I shall be late with my rent this month but I left early last week for what was supposed to be a two days inspection trip into forward positions and what eventually turned out to be nine days out in the dessert (my spelling shows to you what is uppermost on my mind after a week of field rations). (And no USArmy rations, either Yugoslav or Indian, and neither of them go for fancy stuff). Anyhow, I eventually caught up with the pouch again, and the cheque is enclosed. Next time I better start thinking of the rent by midmonth.

Most of my work here is on the problem of opening up the Suez Canal and I am thoroughly enjoying the technical side of it – I am getting to be quite an expert by now on sweeping wires, parbuckling, blowing up camels (although when I heard the term the first time I could not visualize anything else then the results of a faulty digestion of the local beasts of burden), patching and pumping, as well as on the even more complex problems of dredging maintenance, rehabilitation of workshops and floating equipment, signalling systems and traffic direction that must be solved before the Canal can be opened. Less pleasurable is the realization that notwithstanding all the efforts here and the good progress of the technical operations and negotiations on the local level, nothing will come out of it until the political issues are solved by the big boys. I also got caught up by some of the problems of the Emergency Forces, although that’s not really my job, and that was quite interesting too.

I hope all is well with you – I think a bit wistfully of New England snow, this being my second skiing season that I am missing, but basking in a reliably constant sun is not too bad either, at least now while it is not too hot. But there is not much one can do for exercise – specially so as the office hours are 8am to 10pm, Monday through Sunday – and I see myself coming back as fat and flabby as King Farouk (or even worse so unless I find some suitable partner willing to engage with me in the one kind of exercise that he was practicing quite assiduously).

With Best Wishes – Vlado Fabry

This next letter is to Mary Sheila Dean Marshall, dated March 2, 1957:

My dear Sheila,
If you should catch me off my guard and jump on me with the question “how long since you left New York”, I should quite sincerely answer that it was last week or so. I keep surprising myself each time i look at the calendar and realize how time has flown. One reason why all time conceptions become blurred may be our working hours arrangement – 8am (sic!) to 10pm, Monday through Sunday, not counting overtime -; with no weekends or even solitary Sundays to mark the full stop after another elapsed week one simply never knows that another week has begun.

This having been said I am a bit at a loss what else I can write without getting at loggerheads with the UN staff rules concerning unauthorized release of confidential information. I can’t write about my private life – not only is there none but even if I had any I’m sure it would be classified as “restricted”,- everything else seems to be, including memos telling us what to do about fleas and bedbugs and summaries of news clipped from local papers. There are flocks of correspondents swarming around and of course all of them know perfectly well what we are doing and what’s going on, but still both at UNEF HQ and at the Canal Clearance Group I have to pretend as if I was an invisible man whom they could not possibly have seen emerging from a plane or car. Maybe the story about the secrecy class of documents marked as “to be destroyed before reading” was not an invention at all.

In spite of everything, I am thoroughly enjoying life and the feeling of being in the middle of it, and I feel smug and happy whenever I get a chance to stop and realize how I feel or that I feel anything at all. I don’t know whether others feel the same when they wake up to it, but judging by the grumbling about tiredness, food, vermin, roads, dust, sleeplessness, cold, heat, dirt and everything else that one constantly hears around, I may be a blissful idiot completely unaware of the black doom around me. Of course one does get a bit discouraged from time to time when after beating for hours against a stone wall one finds the efforts rewarded by a small crack, only to come back the next day and find that the wall is as solid again as it ever was, but that’s all part of the job and is more than compensated by the absolute bliss when things do move ahead. And there is always the net profit on top of it – the new experience, in particular what I was able to pick up about the salvage and navigational aids business when working on the Canal clearance problems.

With best wishes to Desa [Pavlu] and to all other friends – Love, Vlado

This last letter, dated April 7, 1957, is to Mary Liz (still don’t know her last name, but she worked for the UN), who had a sweet romance with Vlado:

My Dear One,
Sorry for the long pause in my writing. You were just about due for a letter when things started crackling in Gaza, and what with the SG’s [Secretary General Hammarskjold] visit and the rush to finish clearing not only the physical but also political obstacles standing in the way of normal traffic through the Canal, this is the first time I have a free evening since nearly a month. But I don’t regret having been caught up in the madhouse of hectic rush and strain, far from it, I feel grateful for the chance to have been right at the focal point of world history for a while – although I would be a hypocrite not to admit the sigh of relief when Stavropolous OK-ed my actions and took over the responsibility. I always boast to be able to sleep a log in any circumstances, but there was a night when I tossed around tense with worry despite the fact that I had worked 39 hours without a break and should have been tired enough. I was the only lawyer on the spot, events moved so quickly that there was no time to set opinions into code and send them to headquarters for approval, actions were taken on papers dictated right in the typewriter without a chance to reread and revise them, and for a while I was left with the nightmare of figuring out ex-pot all that could go wrong instead of having a chance to think it over in advance. But we muddled through somehow. I admit that there were days when I did not think of you at all, or at most with a quick flash of recollection swamped away before the image could get proper hold, but I am making up for it now – I literally woke up with you on my thoughts the last three mornings and you stayed with me whenever my mind lazied away from work through the day and evening.

Not much I can write about myself otherwise. I took an apartment (top floor, of course, to have an unobstructed view) with a big terrace and a contraption for beating out carpets on it that I planned to use for some chinning up exercises, but hardly made any use of it. Nor did I find time during the last month to go for my lunch-time swim and sunbath. I stayed in Cairo during the SG’s visit, but all the time could not find an hour for myself to look into a mosque or museum. And of course no time to read – although during the first month here I managed to pense books on Islam, on the pharaonic art and history, on 17th century philosophers, on Abelard, Graves’ Sargeant Lamb, Greens’ Heart of the Matter, Weller’s mediocre but for me interesting novel on “liberation” by the Russians, Dylan Thomas’ autobiography, Faulkner’s Unvanquished, a collection of Truman Capote and a few more.

Hope to get a letter from you soon – never thought I would ask anybody to write me just for writing’s sake, but your letters are very precious to me and it feels so good to read and reread them (I got three so far). Let me know how your leg feels – will you be ready for some hikes when I come back? By the way, I shall leave here around the 20th or 25th April for Europe, reach NY probably beginning June.

All my love – Vlado

And just one more extra – the footage of Hammarskjold’s visit to the Suez Canal in 1957, thanks to HammarskjoldProject on Youtube:

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2 thoughts on “Vlado and the Suez Canal

  1. john zande

    It’s becoming more and more evident the reason why you’re honouring this man: He was a champion of our species, a humanist, an optimist.

  2. makagutu

    Here was a passionate man.
    I found the statement :destroy before reading” hilarious and I think the bible should come with such a warning 😛

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